Alcohol and Sex: the Connection


Nov. 3, 2006 — -- Former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley has decided to extend his stay at Sierra Tucson, a rehab center outside Tucson, Ariz., where he has been treated for alcoholism since Oct. 1.

Foley originally checked into the Sierra Tucson rehab center for a monthlong program, but acquaintances report that the former congressman has decided to remain there. He hasn't said why he is continuing his treatment.

Foley is facing a federal investigation on his sexually explicit Internet messages to teenage former congressional pages. He resigned from Congress in September after public disclosure of the messages.

He later said through an attorney that he was an alcoholic and had been molested by a Catholic priest when he was a boy.

Foley reportedly sent messages to congressional pages while he was drinking.

So is it at all possible that Foley's alcoholism and alleged history of being sexually abused are excuses for his bad behavior?

Not exactly, experts say. Alcohol use and past traumas do not excuse bad behavior, although they can provide a partial explanation.

Experts also suggest that if any addict doesn't realize that his or her own behavior is inexcusable, he or she will never recover from his addiction.

Alcohol has measurable effects on sexual arousal and risk taking, according to the research.

A few drinks can increase the likelihood that a person will become the perpetrator or the victim of sexual assault, and can make a person more likely to have unprotected sex or to pursue some object of desire that would be taboo under more sober circumstances.

"When people are drinking, there is a loss of social inhibition," said Cory Silverberg, a sex educator and sexual media consultant. "After a few drinks, people are less likely to consider the long-term effects of what they're doing."

And if a few drinks can get you into some sex-related trouble, chronic alcohol abuse can be very destructive, Silverberg says.

For example, people who are chronic abusers of alcohol may have fewer long-term relationships, or may be less able to find or maintain sexual partners, and may find themselves alienated and alone.

Some say alcohol isn't the problem, it's the alcoholic.

Most people who pull risky stunts after a few drinks also likely engage in risky behaviors when sober, says Thomas Irwin, program director for the McClean Center at Fernside near Boston.

"It's sort of a chicken-and-egg thing," Irwin said. "People who are risky by nature may tend to drink more, and people who drink more may be more likely to engage in risky behavior when they're drinking."

Irwin also suggests that some people may deliberately drink to lower their own inhibitions.

"If someone has 'bizarre' sexual desires, it's more likely that those things get expressed if someone is drinking heavily," he said.

Although experts agree that alcohol plays a part in human behavior, they won't say that alcohol is responsible for that behavior. It's not an excuse, Irwin says.

"Regardless of what someone is ingesting, they are responsible for the substances they are consuming and for the consequences that follow," he said.

In other words, the sober person, the drunk person, and the person who slobbers on your spouse at a party, for example, are all the same person.

Alcohol doesn't give anyone a get-out-of-jail-free card. And if a person can't come to terms with that fact, it isn't likely that the drinker's behavior is going to change.

"If someone isn't willing to take that responsibility, he or she will have little chance of successful treatment," Irwin said.

Research also suggests that victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to abuse alcohol as they grow older.

That fact doesn't excuse a pedophile's own predilection for minors, but it does ask this question: If a person is sexually abused as a child, is he or she more likely to commit sexual abuse?

Maybe, experts say. But it isn't a guarantee, and it doesn't excuse anything.

"It's not expected, but it is possible. Pedophiles as a group, even compared to rapists, are more likely to have been sexually abused as children than are other sex offenders," said Martin Kafka, a clinical psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Boston and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Being sexually abused as a child can be a risk factor but is not a cause of pedophilia.

"And one can become a pedophile and have no history of sexual abuse whatsoever," Kafka said.

In other words, scientists can find no excuses, only partial explanations for human behaviors.

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